DUP helped light fuse... now they must put it out
Peter Robinson is, by nature, a cautious politician. He has taken some time to take stock, but now he has made a promising statement, which he needs to follow through with action to arrest the slide of recent days.
In his absence over the summer there were disturbing signs that his party will not, or cannot, honour the political cheques he has written in a series of visionary speeches on the theme of reconciliation.
He promised a shared future and society in which sectarian divisions would be whittled down, so that politics could be about policies.
There has been a skilful dance of reciprocal confidence-building gestures between himself and Martin McGuinness.
They included attendance at funerals and GAA matches and culminated in Mr McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen.
In the past fortnight, that promise has been undermined, first by a series of fundamentalist initiatives from the religious Right, but, more recently, by the adoption of partisan and divisive positions on parading in north Belfast.
Mr Robinson’s own name appeared on a letter which lambasted the Parades Commission on the eve of a contentious parade past a Catholic church.
There is no doubt that the letter encouraged loyalist bands to breach the Parades Commission determinations, forcing the police into the line of fire and ratcheting up tension for days of rioting.
It put the signatories on the wrong side of the main Protestant Church leaders, the Police Federation and the PSNI.
Yet Nelson McCausland, a DUP minister pledged to uphold the rule of law, instead upheld the principle of civil disobedience.
Mr Robinson’s deputy, Nigel Dodds, appeared to focus more criticism on the Parades Commission than the rioters.
Such knockabout comments were to be expected when the DUP was an oppositional protest movement without Executive responsibility. In Government, china shop rules apply; if you break it, you own it.
DUP members, like Mr Dodds, risk drawing other, peaceful, areas of the province into the problems of north Belfast by indulging in speculative whataboutery.
He singles out Dungiven, a predominantly nationalist town, in which republican parades pass close to the local Presbyterian and Church of Ireland churches.
Mr Dodds presents this as something close to a mirror-image of north Belfast. In fact, the republican parades are part of a delicate local balance, which also sees an annual Orange march down the town’s main street.
I spoke to the clergy in both Protestant Churches. They say they have, so far, received no complaints from their congregations and have no issue with the parades, which do not interfere with their services. A problem-solver would import this live-and-let-live attitude into north Belfast — not risk infecting Dungiven with the north Belfast disease.
There has never been a complaint to the Parades Commission about Dungiven, though possibly, if the politicians keep poking at the situation for long enough, one will materialise.
That is to be avoided, not encouraged. Mr Robinson yesterday pinned his colours to the mast on the issue of violence, but he must now make clear that, in the absence of an agreed replacement to the Parades Commission, or agreement on routes, everyone is expected to obey its determinations.